Merlot is the second most widely-planted black wine grape in the world.1 Most major wine-producing country have Merlot vineyards, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Chile, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, the United States, and of course France.
It is by
far the most widely planted grape of the entire Bordeaux region and third, behind
carignan and grenache as the most planted black
variety in France. However, it has a starring
role in only one region, historically, north of
Bordeaux's Gironde River, where it is the basis
of the wines of St. Emilion and
Pomerol. Château Petrus, which has
risen in consumer stature in the past four
decades, is over 90% Merlot.2
South of the
Gironde, however, merlot played a
supporting role, usually about a third or less of typical Medoc blends
with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, until 1950, when plantings began to increase. Today, an average Medoc red blend has a base of two-thirds merlot, with the other grapes lending support.
Most of the increased merlot planting has come at the loss of the cabernet franc, carmenere, malbec, and verdot varieties.
Because merlot ripens at least
a week earlier than either cabernet variety, it is "vineyard
insurance" where rains are a factor at harvest. The best quality
merlot grows in rocky, arid ground, but is fairly adaptable
and grows better than the cabernets in clay-based soils, even
in damp, cool climates. Since merlot both buds and flowers
early, growers' main worry is susceptibility to shatter
or coulure, brought about by frost, rain, or early
heat waves in the Spring. The berry of merlot is relatively
thin-skinned and somewhat prone to rot.
Merlot DNA has been traced back to reveal parentage that is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, a variety that is now near extinction. Moderately vigorous in vine growth, it must sometimes
be reined in from setting too large of a crop by judicious
pruning, often followed weeks later by cluster thinning. Merlot
on fertile soil may produce eight tons per acre, but best
fruit quality is gained if the crop is kept at six tons per
acre or less. Merlot's tendencies towards both shatter and
over-cropping are paradoxical. Careful selection of both clone
and site can avoid this problem, as shatter is more serious
in colder climates. The merlot vine best thrives where seasonal temperature averages from 61° to 66° F.
Merlot was brought to California in the 1850s and 1870s, but made little impact and was practically unknown. Almaden put in some in San Benito County in the late 1950s, Inglenook had some old acreage (planting date uncertain), and Louis M. Martini planted merlot in 1962, near Healdsburg. Merlot was first labeled as a stand-alone varietal wine by Louis M. Martini, on a non-vintaged blend of grpaes from the 1968 and 1970 seasons.
California Merlot was not a big seller until
the end of the '80s. But in the 1990s, Merlot became to the American wine consumer what "burgundy"
was in the '70s: the generic red wine flavor of fashion. Less than 2,000 acres existed in California
in 1985, but over 50,000 acres were bearing by 2003.
Gunlach-Bundschu, an historical producer of Sonoma County merlot has produced this highly amusing, entertaining and educational short video on the popular history of the grape...
its flavor profile is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon2,
Merlot tends to be less distinctive and slightly more herbaceous
overall in both aroma and taste. Ripeness seems critical;
both under ripe and overripe grapes lean away from fruit and
towards herbaceousness. Merlot has slightly lower natural
acidity than Cabernet and generally less astringency, therefore
usually a more lush mouth-feel.
frequent, but not exclusive, aromas and flavors
typically found in Merlot include:
Merlot Smell and/or Flavor
depends upon individual tasting ability and experience
and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions,
as well as viticultural and enological techniques.
This list therefore is
merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.
Cabernet Sauvignon to mature in bottle, Merlot
is held in higher esteem by wine drinkers than
by wine collectors.
richer and darker, Pinot Noir lighter and more
velvety, but Merlot has become the darling red
wine. Is it because the consumer finds Merlot
easy-to-drink or is it perhaps, because Merlot
is easy-to-say? I'll have a glass of Merlot,
please, while I think about it.
NOTES 1. A bottle of the 1970 (excellent vintage) Ch. Petrus sold for under US$45 in 1975; a bottle of Ch. Petrus 2006 (similarly-rated vintage) lists for an average price of over US$2,200 in 2011. RETURN
recent study by an analytical chemist at the University of Bordeaux
determined that the flavor distinction between Cabernet Sauvignon
and Merlot was possibly due to the grapes containing different
amounts of one chemical: 4-hyroxy-2,5- dimethylfuran-3(2H)-1,
or HDMF. Four times the level of HDMF in Merlot accounted for
a more pronounced "caramel" flavor, according to the panel of
expert taster subjects, who graded nine samples on the relative
strength of 12 aroma categories. RETURN
4. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all.
Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003